One way Christians interact with the text of the Bible is to assume that it is a sort of “instruction manual for life” – a book that contains all the answers to life’s pressing questions. As a result, if you want to know what your view should be on, say, the Harry Potter series of books, you can search the words of Scripture, find the “data” that speaks to your particular question, and get an answer, usually with a fairly nice bow on top.
In this context, one common mode of studying Scripture is to look for “what the Bible says about ______.” It’s not hard to find this in some form at most churches. “We’re doing a series on servanthood – come learn what the Bible says about being a servant.” “For the next five weeks, we’ll be talking about Biblical principles for money management.” “We’ll be starting a series next week on how you can have a stronger marriage based on passages in the Psalms.” “Our class this semester will be focused on dealing with depression from a Biblical perspective.” And so on.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that, on two levels, this mode of approaching the text often results in selection bias. Allow me to explain.
In statistics, selection bias occurs when you, for a variety of possible reasons, don’t take the entire population into account. One of the most obvious examples is sampling bias, where systematic errors are introduced by having a non-random sample. One often cited example are voting and issue polls which are conducted by telephone – such a sample excludes all people who don’t own phones, and if you don’t take this into account, you can end up drawing incorrect conclusions based on the sample data you collect. A more recent example involves the transition of television viewing habits among American households. Ten years ago, before most people had DVRs, television ratings were conducted exclusively based on what households watched live. As DVRs became more popular, more households began to faithfully follow shows, but tended to watch them at times that fit better into their schedule. Ditto with watching shows on the internet. Studios are still struggling with how to determine the popularity and revenue streams for shows when the ratings information they receive increasingly fails to reflect actual viewership. In short, selection bias often leads you to the wrong conclusion because you assume one thing about what you’re looking at (namely, that your sample reflects the actual population), while in reality, you have, generally unintentionally, excluded certain members of the population, causing the sample you’ve selected to not really be representative of the population as a whole. So what does this have to do with Scripture?
When we start with the question “What does the Bible say about _________?”, we commit our first selection bias by pre-selecting only the topics that we are interested in. It’s been a while, I suspect, since a church has done a seven week series on “what the Bible says about the virtue of poverty, and why we should sell everything, and give it to the poor”. Rather, the topics that are usually selected for classes and sermons generally center around what is “practical”, or “relevant to our daily lives”, or “problems that are facing Christians today.” The trouble with this is that much of scripture doesn’t fall into these nice, simple packages. It’s hard to take away a lot of nice, happy, “practical” images from the book of Obadiah, for example. And so, for the most part, difficult passages, passages that don’t seem to have a lot of immediate practical value, passages that are particularly challenging or difficult to read – in short anything that doesn’t fall into the category of something we find relevant is simply ignored. The ultimate effect is that Scripture isn’t allowed to say anything we might want to hear, since we are only looking into topics about which we do want to hear.
Furthermore, once we’ve pre-selected our topics and weeded out anything potentially challenging or confronting, we then get to engage in a second step which encourages additional selection bias: namely we decide which passages “apply” to the topic, and which ones don’t. This can be particularly problematic, even given our ability to do rapid word searches on the text, because searching for words and searching for ideas or images is a completely different thing. Consider the concept of “atonement” – a word that appears in most English translations of the New Testament less than a dozen times, yet is woven into the fabric of the text through many overlapping, and sometimes conflicting metaphors and images. Unless one is particularly widely versed in the breadth of Scripture, it is entirely possible to leave out verses which are absolutely applicable simply because one was unaware of them, and they didn’t turn up in a simple search. The problem is exacerbated by the reality that studying like this long term tends to reinforce certain passages to the exclusion of others – in other words, we tend to gravitate to the same passages, which causes us to forget or ignore others.
That’s not to say that we won’t commit selection bias if we read exegetically through books of Scripture, or that there aren’t potential problems with this approach. But it does mean that when we come to Scripture with questions of the form, “What does the Bible say about _____?”, we must be very careful. When we speak into Scripture and expect it to respond directly to our questions, we should not be surprised if the answers we hear back are our own.